Gabonese President Ali Bongo, who was targeted Monday by an apparent coup, has struggled to emerge from the shadow cast by his father, Omar, ruler of the oil-rich West African state for more than four decades.
Small and stocky, 59-year-old Bongo became known variously by his initials of ABO, Ali B — or, less flatteringly, as “Monsieur Fils” (Mr. Son).
He was born to a 15-year-old girl, Josephine Kama, in the Congolese city of Brazzaville, which at the time was still part of France’s rapidly-shrinking colonial empire.
Because he had been born abroad before his parents’ marriage, Bongo for years fought rumours that he was a foreigner who had been adopted.
Amateurs of pop psychology keen for signs of filial insecurity would be sure to pounce on a record that Bongo made in 1977 as an aspiring funk singer.
Now a Youtube curiosity (http://u.afp.com/orgj), the album features top-class musicians, lavishly produced by associates of James Brown, and carries the title “A Brand New Man.”
In those days, Bongo called himself by his birth name of Alain Bongo.
Within three years, though, shepherded by his father, he abandoned the path of entertainment and entered politics, a “new man” in career terms. He renamed himself Ali Bongo, converting to Islam like his father.
– Oil wealth –
Bongo senior, who took office in 1967, had the reputation of a a kleptocrat — one of the wealthiest men in the world, with a fortune derived from Gabon’s oil.
He was also a pillar of “Francafrique” — a now much-contested strategy by which France bound itself to its former African colonies through cronyism, often tainted with corruption and rights abuses.
Bongo senior liked to claim that Ali and his elder sister Pascaline worked for him on the basis of their talent, and not nepotism.
As a young man, Bongo worked as his father’s faithful lieutenant, travelling the world and building up extensive contacts in the United States and the Arab world at the time of the second oil boom.
In August 1989, he was appointed foreign minister at just 30, but had to step down two years later when a new constitution stipulated that cabinet members had to be at least 35.
He was back in government by 1999, at the head of the defence ministry.
There he remained until shortly before the start of the election campaign caused by the death of his father in 2009 after 42 years in office.
– ‘Renewal’ –
The handover to Bongo junior was not a surprise, given the years of grooming and his own ambitions, despite some opposition in the ruling Gabonese Democratic Party (PDG), and the shadow of corruption left by his father.
In 2016, he was narrowly re-elected for a second-year term by a few thousand votes, beating out opposition challenger Jean Ping after a campaign marred by bloody clashes and allegations of voter fraud.
Pitching to a country that had been run for decades by his family, Bongo tried the difficult task of posing as an agent of change — packing each speech with words such as “renewal” and “innovation.”
He unveiled a string of projects, including diversifying the economy, opening up markets to Asian investors, trimming the state sector, building a giant marina in the heart of the capital, Libreville.
“He made all these big announcements, but did they lead to anything?” asked Jean, an unemployed Libreville resident.
One of his enduring achievements, though, was to foster the environment, notably creating a wildlife park that surrounds the capital.
Bongo turfed out a string of long-standing officials and replaced them with a younger generation — “he wanted to chase away his father’s ghost and exercise control,” a diplomatic observer said.
But to his detractors, Bongo was stiff and lacked the charm and communication skills of his father.
He attended some of Brazzaville’s top schools and went on to study law in France, the former colonial power, but did not learn any of Gabon’s local languages — a major disadvantage.
– Stardust –
His lavish spending, especially on luxury cars, also raised eyebrows in a country where oil wealth contrasts with widespread poverty.
Bongo’s dream of stardust never left him.
In 1992, while still defence minister, he organised a trip to Gabon by Michael Jackson, and Jackson’s brother, Jermaine, attended Bongo senior’s funeral in 2009.
In 2017, Bongo went to London to record an album with the London Symphony Orchestra called “Symphonic Visions from Gabon” which he co-composed.
In 1989, Bongo married Sylvia, a Franco-Gabonese, with whom he had four children.